The secret to success

I was brought up to believe in the value of a meritocracy (my school’s motto was ‘Virtus non stemma’ – ‘Worth, not Birth’). It took me a very long time to recognise that the world doesn’t work that way. Far too many believe that our society is a meritocracy, and that rewards accrue to those most worthy; but the reality is an inversion, and a perversion: ‘Birth, not Worth’.

I chanced upon ‘The Pencilsword #TEN: On a Plate’ by Toby Morris not long ago. While looking for a way to contact Toby to ask for permission to reproduce it, I discovered that he says that ‘#TEN’ is widely stolen, widely shared. It’s all good.

Toby’s insightful cartoon reminded me of a video by Veritasium on ‘the success paradox’, which questions whether success is luck or hard work. I’ve included that below, too (together with a transcription).

I think that these two complement each other wonderfully.

First, you must believe that you are in complete control of your destiny and that your success comes down only to your own talent and hard work. But second, you’ve got to know that’s not true for you or anyone else.


Veritasium: During the COVID lockdown, this headline went viral: “Nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling; 3% of women agree.” I bring this up not to debate who’s right, but because it’s a great example of something called ‘egocentric bias‘. Most people think they do most of the work. For example, researchers have asked authors of multi-author papers what percentage of the work they personally did; and when they add up those percentages, the sum is on average, 140%. When couples are asked to estimate how much of the housework they do, the combined total is almost always over 100%.

Now, you might think this is because people want to appear more helpful than they actually are, but that’s not it. When couples are asked what fraction of the fights they start, or how much of the mess is theirs, the total is again over 100. People think they do more of the work, but they also think they cause more of the problems. So why is this? I think it’s simply because you experience and remember vividly all of what you do, but not all of what everyone else does. So, naturally, you overestimate your own contributions and underestimate others’. I think this bias leads us to underestimate the influence of other things on our lives, like the role luck plays in our success.

Take hockey players, for example. If you ask a professional hockey player how they managed to reach the NHL, they might mention their hard work, determination, great coaches, their parents’ willingness to get up at 5am, and so on, but they probably won’t acknowledge how lucky they were to be born in January. And yet, in many years, 40% of hockey players selected into top tier leagues are born in the first quarter of the year, compared to just 10% in the fourth quarter. An early birthday can make you up to four times as likely to be a pro hockey player. And the reason for this disparity is presumably because the cut-off date for kids hockey leagues is January 1st. Those born in the first part of the year are a little older and so on average, bigger and faster than kids in their league born late in the year. Now, as they grow up, this difference should eventually shrink to nothing. But it doesn’t; because the young kids who show the most promise are given more time on the ice, and enter more tournaments, where they receive better coaching and improve their skills. And these advantages compound year after year. So by the time you get to the pros, birthdays are heavily skewed towards the start of the year. But does any professional hockey player feel thankful for their birthday? Probably not.

And we are all like that, largely oblivious to the fortunate events that support our success. Probably the most significant bit of luck many of us enjoy is being born into a prosperous country. Around half the variance in income received by people around the world is explained by their country of residence and that country’s income distribution. If you were born in Burundi, for example, which has the world’s lowest gross national income per capita of just $730 a year, it doesn’t matter how smart or hard-working you are, you’re unlikely to earn much as an adult. Now, many people get offended if you point out how big a role chance plays in their success. And I get it, if we are just a product of our circumstances, then our hard work and our talent seem to count for nothing. People think it has to be either skill or luck that explains success. The truth is, you need both. Take these eight track and field world records; all the athletes who achieved these records are obviously world class: extremely dedicated and talented, and yet when they achieved their world records, seven out of eight had a tailwind. Now, these athletes all had the ability to win a gold medal, but to set the world record required a bit of luck as well.

The importance of luck increases the greater the number of applicants applying for just a few spaces. Consider the most recent class of NASA astronauts. From over 18,300 applicants in 2017, only 11 were selected and went on to graduate from the astronaut training program. And we can make a toy model of the selection process. Let’s assume that astronauts are selected mostly based on skill, experience and hard work, but also, say, 5% as a result of luck; fortunate circumstances. For each applicant, I randomly generated a skill score out of 100 and I also randomly generated a luck score out of 100. Then I added those numbers together, weighted in the 95:5 ratio to get an overall score. This score represents the selectors’ judgments, meaning the top 11 by this metric would become astronauts. And I repeated this simulation a thousand times, representing a thousand different astronaut selections. And what I found was the astronauts who were picked were very lucky; they had an average luck score of 94.7. So, how many of these selected astronauts would have been in the top 11 based on skill alone? The answer was, on average, only 1.6. That means even with luck accounting for just 5% of the outcome, nine or maybe 10 of the 11 applicants selected would have been different if luck played no role at all.

When competition is fierce, being talented and hard working is important, but it’s not enough to guarantee success, you also need to catch a break. Largely, I think we’re unaware of our good luck because, by definition, it’s not something we did; like the housework done by your significant other, it goes unappreciated. And here’s the crazy thing: downplaying the importance of chance events may actually improve your probability of success, because if you perceive an outcome to be uncertain, you’re less likely to invest effort in it, which further decreases your chances of success. So it’s a useful delusion to believe you are in full control of your destiny. I mean, if I had known how bad I was when I started YouTube or how much work it would take, I might have given up right then.

Welcome to Veritasium: an online science video blog.

Now, there may be another benefit to overlooking your lucky breaks, which is it makes it easier to justify your place in society. If you have a lot of wealth or power, you can just chalk it up to your own intelligence, effort and perseverance. It makes it easier to accept inequality.

In one experiment, participants were put in groups of three in small rooms to discuss a complex moral problem, and one person in each group was randomly designated the ‘team leader’. Half an hour later, the experimenter came by with four cookies for each team. So who got the extra cookie? In each case, it went to the team leader, even though they had no special aptitude: they didn’t have extra responsibilities and they’d gotten their position through chance alone. Once you have achieved a certain status, it seems natural to feel like you deserve it, and all the other good things that come your way. Now, this is just an anecdote, but whenever I’ve been upgraded to fly business class, I’ve always observed the worst behavior in my fellow privileged passengers; they just act so entitled and uncourteous.

And research has found evidence for this as well. In another experiment, participants were asked to think of a good thing that happened to them recently. And then one group was asked to list their own personal qualities or actions that made that good thing happen. Another group was asked to list external factors beyond their control that led to the event, and a control group was simply asked to list reasons why the good thing happened. Now, for completing this task, participants were told they would be paid $1, but at the end, they were offered the option to donate some or all of the money to a charity. Results showed those who listed their own personal attributes contributed 25% less than those who listed external factors beyond their control.

Now, think of what all this means for people in our society, specifically for people in positions of power, like business leaders and politicians. Now, undoubtedly, most of them are talented and hard working, but they have also been luckier than most. And like most of us, they don’t realize just how lucky they are. And this gives them a distorted view of reality. They’re kind of living in a form of survivor bias. All these leaders have worked hard and ultimately succeeded, so, to them, the world appears fair. In their experience, it rewards hard work. But what they don’t have is the experience of all the people who have worked hard — and failed. So what are they to make of people less successful than themselves? Well, the natural conclusion is that they must just be less talented or less hard working. And this perspective makes them less inclined to be generous; to give back. And they are the ones who set the rules for how society operates.

And this is particularly unfortunate, since one of the main ways many of us are lucky is in our country of residence. But what is a country except for the things put there by people who came before; the roads and the schools, public transport, emergency services, clean air and water and everything like that? It seems a cruel trick of our psychology that successful people without any malice will credit their success largely to their own hard work and ingenuity, and therefore contribute less to maintaining the very circumstances that made that success possible in the first place.

The good news is that acknowledging our fortunate circumstances not only brings us more in line with reality, it also makes us more likeable. In a study where people had to read the transcript of a fictional 60 Minutes interview with a biotech entrepreneur, experimenters tried changing just the last paragraph where the interviewee is talking about the reasons for their company’s success. In one version, the entrepreneur personally takes credit for the success they’ve had. But in the other, he says luck played a significant role. Now, people who read the luck version of the transcript judged the entrepreneur as kinder, and thought they’d be more likely to be close friends with him than those who read the other version of the transcript. And raising our awareness of fortunate events can also make us happier because it allows us to feel gratitude.

Personally, I am grateful to Michael Stephens of Vsauce, who on October 7th, 2012 posted the video, ‘How much does a shadow weigh?‘ which shouts out my slow motion Slinky drop video; and within three days my subscribers had increased by a third — and within a month they had doubled, leading me to quit my part time job and work exclusively on YouTube videos. And I’m grateful to the writer of the free newspaper they give out on the trains in Sydney who didn’t quite understand electricity, leading me to post this picture of their article to my Instagram with a caption, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’. And I’m lucky that the first person to answer correctly was a beautiful woman who became my future wife. Yep, that is how I met your mother. Now, initially, I wanted to make this video just to say our circumstances and psychology conspired to make us oblivious to our own luck; and this leads successful people to view the world as fair and those less successful than them as less talented or less hard-working. And this is before you factor in any discrimination or prejudice. But, it also became apparent to me that I should talk about what to do if you want to be successful in such a world.

And I think the best advice is paradoxical. First, you must believe that you are in complete control of your destiny and that your success comes down only to your own talent and hard work. But second, you’ve got to know that’s not true for you or anyone else. So you have to remember if you do achieve success, that luck played a significant role. And given your good fortune, you should do what you can to increase the luck of others.

[Snipped section where ‘Veritasium’ talks about his ‘Snatoms‘ product, and offers a deal that has long since expired.]

And I really want to thank you for watching; and thank you for all my good luck.

Veritasium: The Success Paradox; Is Success Luck or Hard Work?

The transcript above was made with the help of Sonix, which did most of the donkey work for a tiny fee (I did have to spend some time tidying it up). Note that I do not have the copyright owner’s permission to publish this transcript here. I’ve investigated the copyright rules regarding transcriptions (more about that here), and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s no defence to make a disclaimer like “these aren’t my words, no copyright infringement intended.” However, I offer the transcription here as a service to society (especially the deaf community). I do hope the copyright owner won’t object. And I hope that you find this video as interesting as I did.

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Communication, Core thought, Education, perception, Phlyarology, Strategy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to The secret to success

  1. darsword says:

    Reblogged this on Darswords and commented:
    Love this! I hope you don’t mind me sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. revruss1220 says:

    Great stuff. As a white, straight male, I know with absolute certainty that in my life I have been hired for jobs based simply on those demographic qualities. I certainly didn’t turn those jobs down and honestly never questioned the system that gave them to me. It is important to shine a light on the injustice of this system. At the same time, you should expect that your “light shining” will be met with stiff resistance by the “Richards” of the world.

    Liked by 3 people

    • peNdantry says:

      I understand what you’re saying (although the term ‘Richards’ is not one with which I’m familiar).

      Although I did spend more time crafting this post than many of my others, I had some additional thoughts on the matter after the post actually went ‘live’ (as quite often happens).

      One of those thoughts was that I realised that my words might be construed by some as denigrating those who have achieved success despite no initial ‘birth’ advantage; and that is most definitely not what I intended to do here. It’s inevitable that some will succeed despite (or indeed perhaps because of) initial disadvantage; but they are exceptional, as I think Veritasium points out.

      The other point that I now wish I had made clearer in the post itself is that by ‘birth’ I intended to refer more to ‘accident of geographical location’ than ‘parentage’, as in: I myself was fortunate to have been born into an affluent nation rather than another less fortunate one.

      As I think you might say, Russell my friend: “there, but for the Grace of God, go I”. And far too many blessed in life by the chance location of where their parents happened to have been when they were born into this world fail to grasp that simple reality.


    • peNdantry says:

      I just re-read my post, and now realise what you mean by “the ‘Richards'”.


  3. Anita Bowden says:

    Great post! The cartoon “On a Plate”, in particular, does a fabulous job of explaining the lifelong consequences of inequity! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Spot on, mate.
    Now I need some luck to get me a publisher for my Doom Healer books. Submitted to two contests today…

    Liked by 1 person

    • peNdantry says:

      Luck and persistence go hand in hand, I understand – one of the reasons I relinquished my dream to become a famous published author (instead of an obscure self-published one) was my inability to inure myself to rejection. I think your writing is excellent, and worthy of a larger audience.


  5. Margy says:

    Much depends on a person’s definition of success, I suppose. I know plumbers and gardeners and truck drivers and restaurant wait staff who are happy with their jobs and believe they are successful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • peNdantry says:

      I hear you. But we all compare ourselves with others: do those plumbers, gardeners, truck drivers and restaurant wait staff all believe that they are being treated fairly by society? I’d be interested in hearing their response to that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I bet it would depend on the plumber or gardener. (Plumbing is actually a pretty decent job, in my book. Trucking pays ok, but it’s a rough lifestyle.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Margy says:

        Is ‘fair’ treatment by society and comparing yourself to others the metrics that people today use to decide whether they are successful, happy and satisfied with their jobs and life? That seems to me to be a recipe for eternal discontent.


        • peNdantry says:

          I’m not suggesting that everyone uses those metrics, no. But, as I say, we all make comparisons; that’s just the way we’re built. Those struggling to make ends meet are, I think, more likely to consider life is treating them unfairly, while those who are more comfortable will tend to believe it’s not. As I see it, problems arise when these groups each denigrate the other based on these internalisations.

          As for contentment, I think that comes with being happy with your lot. I will only ever be content when I can look around and see others more fortunate than myself doing far more – as they could – for those dealt a bad hand. Instead, what I currently see is the contented sitting on their fat backsides, congratulating themselves and washing their hands of the misfortunes of others. So, ‘eternal discontent’ is, I think, my lot.


      • Marleen says:

        I know of an upper-management computer guy (this involves very good pay and a decent amount of respect) who is complaining bitterly that he has to either get vaccinated or accept testing. I don’t get it; I said I’d just get tested (if I had a problem with getting vaccinated). What’s the hig deal with that?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. So there’s something here, but it’s not everything.

    I’m not wealthy by any means, and I don’t have a fantastic income. At the same time I’ve managed to live a fairly comfortable existence. My wife and I own two cars and a house, and we eat decent food most days. We certainly don’t live paycheck to paycheck, even while other people in our same income bracket do. I’ve wondered about why this is, and after thinking about it I think it comes down to a couple things. First off, when I was paying my way through college working the night shift at Wal-Mart I was working with 19 year old kids who were paying child support. If you have to pay for a kid at that age it’s gonna put you back a long ways. Second, I’m not addicted to drugs. Everyone I’ve ever worked with who was living paycheck to paycheck was struggling with some addiction or another

    Now are these issues luck, or fortune, or do they boil down to something a little more substantive? I guess it would depend on who you ask. On the one hand I grew up in a relatively stable home. On the other hand I grew up in rural America, and graduated from high school in 2008 without money or a job, and my parents didn’t have the resources to put me through higher eduction. So I’ve been privileged in some ways, but there have been things I’ve had to fight for. While I largely agree with you, I also think it’s a little more complicated than the writer of the cartoon would like to make it seem.

    My apologies, this seems like a very rambling reply.

    Liked by 2 people

    • peNdantry says:

      Your rambling is welcome and appreciated, Herb. I’m glad to hear that you are comfortable. That can be considered a form of success; it’s all relative, and very much dependent upon your point of view.

      For me, the point of ‘On a Plate’ is revealed in its very clever final frame. Richard very clearly does not recognise that luck has played a part in his own success. Yes, it is more complicated, as you say; but the questions you ask make me wonder what you thought of Veritasium’s presentation on the subject. I found his observations, and particularly his conclusion, highly illuminating.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m reminded of something I read in Nick Offerman’s memoir about how he had been extremely lucky, but he had worked very hard for that luck. Luck is real, but I find it to be a bit of a chicken vs. egg situation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • peNdantry says:

          As Veritasium says:

          Now, many people get offended if you point out how big a role chance plays in their success. And I get it, if we are just a product of our circumstances, then our hard work and our talent seem to count for nothing. People think it has to be either skill or luck that explains success. The truth is, you need both.

          Liked by 1 person

          • And I differ on a couple points. 1) I don’t buy the idea that people are necessarily born with innate skills. Skills are fostered and nurtured along the way, and an individual can, through commitment and hard work, alter their skill set at least to some degree. 2) Skill and commitment can create opportunities which to the casual observer would appear to be luck.

            This is not to say I believe he is totally off base, but those are the areas where I am in disagreement.


          • peNdantry says:

            Where does he suggest that ‘people are born with innate skills’?

            Liked by 1 person

          • He doesn’t come right out and say it, but he does seem to have some pretty firm ideas concerning what constitutes a skill. I picked that up particularly in his discussion of astronauts. I would be curious to hear his definition of a skill. What’s your definition?


          • peNdantry says:

            My own definition of ‘skill’ is pretty much in alignment with what Wikipedia has to say about it. I see nowhere in what Veritasium says that suggests he considers it’s anything else – including in his discussion regarding astronauts.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. What a cool comic strip with eyes and light blinking! Technology, huh? I did find the baby boy disturbing, though, as he looked like an old man.

    I definitely agree with you on how some people have it easier in life than others. However, like dumbestblogger, I also think there’s more to it. People have different priorities and that can influence their decisions and course of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Forestwood says:

    In a similar way, beautiful people have an advantage in life. It is a fact. It isn’t fair or just or egalitarian, but it is true and they are lucky. I guess this is why the beauty products and services are patronised. Luck sucks for those born into less fortunate circumstances. How do the privileged reconcile that? I hope that some work against the injustices and help those less fortunate. Wealth, like intelligence is useless unless you do something with it.
    This is an excellent post and thought-provoking. This I particularly liked:
    ” you must believe that you are in complete control of your destiny and that your success comes down only to your own talent and hard work. But second, you’ve got to know that’s not true for you or anyone else.”
    Breaking through that entitled perspective and confirmation bias isn’t easy to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    • peNdantry says:

      You’re not wrong about ‘beautiful people’. That’s inevitable; we’re hard-wired to appreciate the difference. And it’s a good example of how luck has an influence. I’m ugly as sin myself; I don’t resent the fact, it’s just just the way things are.

      I think that breaking through the barriers you mention, given their long history of persistence, are pretty much impossible. The best we can do is chip away at it.


  9. Interestingly cynical True bue but not completely that bad
    Keep laughing til you get it right then laugh some more

    Liked by 1 person

    • peNdantry says:

      I think that if more successful folk more readily recognised the true roots of their rewards it might go some way towards redressing inequality and injustice. That would be ‘not completely that bad’, in my book.

      Liked by 1 person

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